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Virginia's Webb goes to school on energy issues

February 19th, 2007 11:18 pm by STEPHEN IGO



ABINGDON - Emerging technological know-how to literally bury carbon emissions released by the use of coal snared the interest of Virginia's newest U.S. senator during a get-acquainted breakfast Monday at the Martha Washington Inn in Abingdon.


Democratic Sen. James Webb is the ex-Marine Vietnam combat veteran, novelist and former Reagan administration secretary of the Navy who switched parties to oust incumbent and now former Republican Sen. George Allen last November. A year ago this month Webb had no staff, no political cash and no Virginia Democratic credentials to mount a campaign that outmaneuvered other Democrats in the party's primary elections, then ambushed Allen's bid for a second term and possibly the incumbent's presidential ambitions to boot.


Webb told Virginia coal industry officials on Monday he had planned on a three-day getaway from Washington, D.C., at the home of Buck and Jewell Jones of Gate City. However, by the time his staff had his getaway itinerary complete, he said his wife decided she may as well stay at home with their new baby - born Dec. 11 - and hope for a more relaxing visit with some of Webb's Southwest Virginia relations at another, less politically busy, time.


The itinerary that convinced Webb's wife to stay home with the baby included Monday's breakfast with the coal industry.


"I'm here because I want to stand with you on these issues," Webb said of coal-friendly energy initiatives such as clean coal technology programs.


However, the senator also warned industry executives that he is a stickler on issues important to the working man and woman, such as worker safety - a touchy issue in the mining industry - and that workers should "get a fair share" of economic growth, plus issues related to environmental protection.


The Eastern Coal Council arranged the breakfast primarily as an acquaintance function. Energy extraction industry officials that included natural gas representatives along with coal, state regulatory officials, consultants and research scientists gathered to provide Webb a rundown of the various aspects of the industries, and Webb admitted he knew little of the details and was willing to learn.


Mike Miller, an oil and gas expert with the Bluefield, Va.-based geologic consulting firm of Marshall Miller & Associates, grabbed Webb's attention with a presentation on carbon sequestration.


The emerging process proposes to "sink" carbon underground as coal is burned at yet-to-be-built coal-fired electricity-generating facilities. In deep, thin seams of coal that cannot be economically mined, Miller said tests have shown that coal seams "absorb (carbon dioxide) like a sponge" while forcing coalbed methane, a highly volatile gas that has plagued coal mines, to seek other quarters.


Coalbed methane is now an important natural gas resource already being tapped to bolster the nation's energy needs. Mike Gnifer of CNX Gas earlier told Webb over 600 new gas wells were drilled in Virginia last year, a 35 percent increase over 2005, and that coalbed methane accounts for the largest part of the new wells. Most gas wells are in Buchanan and Dickenson counties.


Miller said pumping carbon dioxide into thin coal seams - a process known as carbon sequestration - holds the double promise of not only stashing a greenhouse gas into a harmless storage space, but can provide a boost in another energy source.


"You're saying that (carbon dioxide) will be absorbed by coal and the methane can be marketed?" Webb asked Miller. "That sounds like a winner to me."


Webb later admitted energy extraction industries were "not an area I have a great deal of expertise in," but he prefers to "start with an understanding of the concepts. Is it good for the economy? Is it good for the people of Virginia? Is it good for the country? Is it good for the environment?"


Webb said he was "sort of fascinated" by the concept of carbon sequestration, a scenario he said struck him as a process "that closes the loop environmentally. It's a benefit economically and environmentally in two different ways."


He said one of the big issues Congress will deal with is climate change, and he will look to long-term U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., "for leadership and advice" on energy issues. Boucher is now chairman of an important energy subcommittee in the House of Representatives.


Energy independence for the nation is going to be one of his key priorities, Webb said, and concepts like carbon sequestration "that show a complete ecological cycle" have already piqued his curiosity.


Webb heard other industry presentations from:


• Consol Energy and Eastern Coal Council Chairman John Zachwieja about the abundance of coal, the fact more than half the nation's electricity is generated from coal, and industry views that Congress should fund clean coal technologies - including coal sequestration projects - before considering new emissions caps.


• George P. "Bo" Willis of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, who spoke on federal and state regulatory structures governing safety and environmental issues.


• Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority Executive Director Jonathan Belcher on the proposed 500-plus megawatt, $1 billion coal-fired power plant to be built and operational by 2012 in Wise County.


• Virginia Tech research scientist Carl Zipper on environmental and other issues affecting coal consumption. Zipper said the nation demands that energy be produced in an environmentally sound manner and that "the science behind the climate change theory is very convincing."


Zipper, too, referred to carbon sequestration as a promising evolution in clean coal technologies, but also pointed to other technologies such as the integrated gasification combined cycle process that will be incorporated in the new coal-fired power plant to be built in St. Paul.


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